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Nostalgia is Good

The nation is fast changing, but remnants of the past are still there for the comforting, if only you look carefully.

Singapore is now old enough to evoke nostalgia. This, even before the Sg50 celebrations next year, when Singapore looks back at 50 years as an independent nation. For now, you need only visit Tiong Bahru to see evidence of times past.

The neighbourhood draws crowds not only because of its market, but also due to its mix of traditional stores and new hipster joints. Stop for a croissant at Tiong Bahru Bakery and coffee at Forty Hands cafe, before stepping into Books Actually. Here, you will find international novels alongside an array of Singaporean works, many of which evoke the past.

Dip into the Silk Road of the Sea by John Miksic, who has spent more than two decades as a leading archaeologist in Singapore. From digging the earth on Fort Canning to combing through dusty archives, he has peered through the longer lens of history to sense the sweep of events before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived.

Quite another look back is Balik Kampung, an edited series published by Math Paper, Book Actually’s publishing arm. Stories centre on places that writers know well and for a long time. In a constantly developing city where displacement is common, the claim to belong is challenging.

Nostalgia is also embodied in the first editions of Singaporean titles that Books Actually owner Kenny Leck saved from mildew and pulping (including, I should confess, my own 1985 Poetry Collection 5). And it’s not just books. There are DVDs like Royston Tan’s Old Places and its successor, Old Romances. There is bric-a-brac that echoes the past, and sells well not just to baby boomers, but also to the young who value that past.

Look at G.O.D. – the Hong Kong label Goods of Desire. Everything, from furniture to apparel and accessories, is based on Canto-nostalgia. Some items look like props from a Wong Kar Wai movie. T-shirt slogans are tongue-in-cheek plays on Cantonese. “Delay No More”, for example, is derived from a Cantonese vulgarity. Maybe Leck should start a Singaporean version (hopefully, it won’t be called Singaporean Object of Desire).

Despite, or indeed because of, the fast pace and constant change in our city lives, the past matters more. History is not just an official (and stodgy) effort by a well-meaning bureaucracy. Nostalgia can be hip, fun and, yes, commercial. Yet, even as we learn to value our heritage, we should be cautious about too much sentimentality. If we live in the past and see the present as only ruins, we run the risk of ending like Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian writer.

One of the best known European authors in the 1930s (and now again generating posthumous buzz), Zweig fled his home and Europe in 1939 after Germany invaded Poland. Not without basis, he felt that “Europe is finished, our world destroyed”, and sailed for the US.

But, unlike other Euro-emigres (think Albert Einstein or Vladimir Nabokov), he could not adapt to his new circumstances and hated exile. Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was a paean to a lost Europe and, without that to live for, he and his wife committed suicide not long after.

The future – for all its uncertainty – can evoke fear. Apocalyptic, dystopian visions now abound, often with zombies. These may not be unwarranted, given real concerns about military tensions, erratic markets, and the existential threats of climate change and pandemics.

It is too easy to consider the past perfect and the future, tense. Yet humans are, genetic anthropologists believe, forward-looking by nature. We are curious about what lies around the corner. Even our memory may serve a forecasting function, neuroscientists suggest. Many of the regions of the brain that remember the past are also active in envisioning the future.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it thus: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Here’s three ways you can keep moving forward, while keeping an eye on the past.

First, revisit classics with your next purchase. From cars to shoes to watches, luxury brands are rummaging through their archives to bring back the classics, updated.

Take the Mini. Although the new model is made by BMW and completely different from the British classic of the 1960s, it has been a bestseller. A similar but much more niche effort is being made with the Eagle Speedster. The specialist carmaker does not restore but advances the classic Jaguar E-type with a modern engine and mechanicals, while trying to stay true to its original spirit (and charging an altogether modern price).

For shoes, there’s Gucci’s horsebit loafer, in original, exotic and vintage-look leather models. For watches, simple designs are the trend not just for established names such as Vacheron Constantin (whose 1955 classic is particularly appealing), but also even for new brands like Jean Richard.
A second way relates to your personal past. Over time, you evolve and change and, if you were to meet your former or future self, who knows if the two of you would get along? Keeping track of your tastes with a photo album is old hat.

Try keeping your spectacles (or sunglasses) instead. This is an integral part of the most recognised part of your person – your face – and you probably gave much thought to its selection. Yet, as fashions change, you trade one in for another and forget what was before.

Keep the frames to curate a mini-gallery of what you liked and what you looked like. I did this more or less by accident, since I kept old pairs as spares in the office or luggage, just in case the current pair cracked. I also converted a pair of Armani frames, circa 1992, into sunglasses.

A third effort to align the past, present and future is with old friends. A friend I have known since we were in short pants expresses it well that we need old friends because “they are not making them anymore”. And, as Singapore is a small place, keeping in touch would seem easy enough.

But, even if we do so, some relationships revolve around reminiscing about old times – which is fine but limiting. A friendship that not only endures but grows and takes on new dimensions is even better. I can tell you about some buddies like that, but they read this column off and on, and I don’t want to get all soppy.

It’s not only things, whether they be design classics or our own vintage items, that connect us to the past. It’s people – even more so, in fact. People connect us to the person we once were, as well as who we are and will be. Old friends who are getting older but remain friends: That’s a true luxury that none of us should be without.